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cover_713122182013_r

TRACKLISTING:
1. Open the Door, See the Ground (10:17)
2. Conversation (8:02)
3. Pop Sick Love Carousel (6:16)
4. Reverie #2 (14:51)
5. Love Letter from Canada (4:26)
6. Dangerous Kitchen (9:04)
7. A Dancing Girl from Planet Marsavishnu Named After the Love (10:48)

LINEUP:
Reza Ryan – guitar
Adi Wijaya – keyboards
Enriko Gultom – bass
Alfiah Akbar – drums

With:
Nicholas Combe – sax (6, 7)

With their rather intriguing handle (allegedly referring to a former girlfriend of guitarist Reza Ryan’s), accompanied by equally intriguing cover artwork, I Know You Well Miss Clara are the latest gem unearthed by Moonjune Records’ Leonardo Pavkovic in the thriving Indonesian music scene. The quartet join fellow countrymen simakDialog, Tohpati and Ligro on the New York label’s ever-growing roster of progressive artists with their debut album, aptly titled Chapter One. Formed in 2010 in the erstwhile Indonesian capital of Yogyakarta (which is also a renowned centre for Javanese classical art and culture) when its members were studying at the Indonesia Institute for the Arts, the band caught Pavkovic’s attention during one of his frequent trips to South-East Asia in search of new talent.

As pointed out in the liner notes (penned by esteemed music writer and King Crimson biographer Sid Smith), Chapter One was recorded in 18 hours, all of the tracks being first or second takes – a testimony to the band’s energy and enthusiasm for their craft. The album itself offers a refreshing take on the classic jazz-rock template so well interpreted in the Seventies by the likes of Return to Forever, Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra – the latter being by far the biggest influence on the band’s sound. Canterbury outfits such as Hatfield and the North and National Health are also a clear source of inspiration for I Know You Well Miss Clara, as indicated by a playful exuberance that speaks volumes about the  members’ enjoyment of music-making, coupled (though never in conflict) with a very high level of technical proficiency.

If compared with simakDialog (whose latest album, The 6th Story, was released at the same time as Chapter One) I Know You Well Miss Clara are more firmly rooted in the Western jazz-rock tradition, with a lone drummer (the excellent Alfiah Akbar) employing a standard kit rather than a trio of kendang percussionists. Although their sound also places a stronger emphasis on guitar (which is not surprising, seen as Reza Ryan is the main composer), none of the four band members prevails on the other or indulges in showing off his skills. Opening track “Open the Door, See the Ground” starts out sedately, then veers into a more experimental mood, with dramatic drums and whooshing, spacey synth complementing Ryan’s sizzling yet tasteful solo. The interplay between the guitar and Adi Wijaya’s piano (both electric and acoustic) is spotlighted in the appropriately-titled “Conversation”, a more laid-back piece with an entrancing ebb-and-flow movement and plenty of melody. This elegant yet accessible approach, injected with sudden surges of energy driven by organ and guitar, is also pursued in the Canterbury-flavoured“Pop Sick Love Carousel”; while the album’s centerpiece, the almost 15-minute “Reverie #2”, starts out at a slow-burning pace, then gradually gains momentum – both piano and guitar emoting in almost improvisational fashion, bolstered by Enriko Gultom’s nimble bass lines – slowing down again towards the end.

The shortest track on the album at around 4 minutes, “Love Letter From Canada” is also the most unusual: a haunting, emotional ambient study of surging keyboard washes, sparse guitar  and cascading cymbals, it hints at interesting future developments in the band’s sound. Its mood is briefly reprised at the beginning of “Dangerous Kitchen”, which then morphs into a leisurely jazzy piece where guest Nicholas Combe’s sax and guitar work almost in unison, leaving some room for a bit of improvisation before the end. A lovely tribute to Ryan’s idol John McLaughlin – by the amusingly tongue-in-cheek title of “A Dancing Girl from Planet Marsavishnu Named After the Love” – closes the album in style, referencing the iconic “Dance of Maya” (from Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame) in a buoyant, dance-like ride interspersed by pensive, sax-led passages before its exhilarating, almost cinematic finale.

Clocking in at around 63 minutes, Chapter One is never at risk of overstaying its welcome in spite of the length of the majority of its tracks. Successfully blending serious chops with engaging spontaneity and enthusiasm, I Know You Well Miss Clara’s debut is one of the best instrumental albums released in 2013 so far, and will delight devotees of classic jazz-rock/fusion – especially those who prize emotion over an excess of technical fireworks. Hopefully the band will follow in simakDialog’s footsteps and visit the US as soon as possible.

Links:
http://iknowyouwellmissclara.weebly.com/index.html

http://moonjunerecords.bandcamp.com/album/chapter-one

http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/057_I-KNOW-YOU-WELL-MISS-CLARA_Chapter-One_MJR057/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Stepping In (10:01)
2. Lain Parantina (9:06)
3. Harmologic (3:52)
4. What I Would Say (6:17)
5. For Once and Never (6:29)
6. Common League (3:53)
7. As Far As It Can Be (Jaco) (8:01)
8. 5, 6 (4:38)
9. Ari (6:52)

LINEUP:
Riza Arshad – Fender Rhodes electric piano, acoustic piano, synth, soundscapes
Tohpati – guitar
Adhitya Pratama - bass
Endang Ramdan – Sundanese kendang percussion (left)
Erlan Suwardana – Sundanese kendang percussion (right)
Cucu Kurnia – assorted metal percussion

Undoubtedly the best-known modern Indonesian outfit in a progressive rock/jazz context, simakDialog have attracted a cult following in the West since the release of their 2007 live album Patahan (their first for Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records), followed in 2009  by Demi Masa. Formed in 1993 in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta by jazz-trained keyboardist Riza Arshad and guitarist extraordinaire Tohpati Ario Hutomo, the band released three albums – Lukisan, Baur and Trance/Mission – between 1995 and 2002 before Pavkovic took them under his wing and gave them international recognition. After a series of mishaps (including the cancellation of NEARfest 2011, where they were scheduled to appear), their long-awaited US tour – which coincided with the release of their fifth studio album, The 6th Story – finally materialized in the late summer of 2013, kicking off with a headlining performance at ProgDay that was unfortunately interrupted by heavy rain, and wrapped up by a very well-attended show at the Orion Studios, introduced by French avant-garde trio Jean-Louis.

As used and abused as the “East meets West” definition can be, there is no better way to describe simakDialog’s music to the uninitiated. Alongside electric guitar, bass and that iconic cornerstone of jazz-rock, the Fender Rhodes electric piano, the six-piece configuration of the band features a trio of percussionists in the style of the traditional gamelan ensembles – Erdang Ramdan and Erlan Suwardana playing the Sundanese two-headed kendang drums, and Cucu Kurnia (the band’s most recent addition) handling metal percussion. The result is a uniquely warm sound with a remarkably natural flow, capable of flashes of angularity and even brief forays into noise, yet never overwrought. In addition, though each of simakDialog’s members is a virtuoso of his own instrument, the band emphasize ensemble playing at its finest rather than technical flash, with individual skills put at the service of the composition rather than the other way round.

SimakDialog’s music, on the other hand, may not prove to be the easiest proposition for those who are used to the in-your-face antics of many traditional prog bands. Subtlety is the operative word on The 6th Story, and that in itself requires a lot of patience on the part of the listener. Their leisurely, unhurried approach to live performance has also more in common with Eastern than Western tradition, focusing on the sheer joy of playing and the creation of subtle moods rather than the head-on adrenaline rush of the standard rock concert.

Clocking in at a handful of seconds under an hour, The 6th Story (the band’s first entirely instrumental album in over 10 years) opens with “Stepping In”, the album’s longest track, which aptly illustrates simakDialog’s  modus operandi. While the sinuous interplay of Tohpati’s guitar and Riza Arshad’s scintillating Fender Rhodes immediately leaps out from the speakers, it is the joyful mayhem of the three percussionists that impresses in the long run, bolstered by Adithya Pratama’s impeccable bass emerging every now and then in the foreground. The track unfolds with supreme elegance, spiced up by sound effects that turn slightly chaotic towards the end. The 9-minute “Lain Parantina” also conveys a sunny, bright feel with its oddly catchy main theme and skillfully handled tempo changes, gaining momentum then slowing down to an almost sparse texture,  held together by the steady stream of percussion. Tohpati’s guitar is spotlighted in the much shorter “Harmologic”, while the piano takes an almost supporting role, working almost as an additional percussion instrument. In the second shortest track on the album, “Common League”, soundscapes add an intriguing note to the lively yet fluid sparring of piano and guitar.

SimakDialog’s more energetic side surfaces in “5,6”, where Tohpati displays his rock credentials (amply demonstrated in his power trio Tohpati Bertiga’s 2012 debut, Riot) with a distorted guitar solo; while the upbeat “For Once and Never” revolves around the expressive, almost conversational interplay of the two main instruments, supported by Pratama’s versatile bass. The discreet, laid-back “What Should I Say” pleases the ear with its smooth sounds, and “As Far As It Can Be (Jaco)” – a tribute to the ground-breaking bassist written by Arshad together with fellow Indonesian musician Robert M.K. – takes on a suitably elegiac tone, full of lovely, stately melody. “Ari” then closes the album by giving synth a leading role alongside the piano, with the ever-reliable percussion background seconding the music’s ebb and flow.

For the audiophile, headphones will be a must in order to savour The 6th Story in full, as letting it run in the background will definitely not do any favours to the music’s understated elegance.  Although the album may resonate more with jazz fans than the average prog audience, it is highly recommended to all open-minded listeners, especially those who enjoy the influence of different ethnic traditions on established Western modes of expression. All in all, The 6th Story is an extremely classy  effort (and one of the standout releases of 2013) from a group of very nice, unassuming and talented musicians, whom I hope to see again in the US very soon.

Links:
http://simakdialog.com

http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/artists_mjr/simakDialog/

https://myspace.com/simakdialog/music/songs

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trancelucid5

TRACKLISTING:
1. TM (3:33)
2. Spyglass (4:47)
3. Illumination (4:03)
4. Pocket (3:31)
5. The Crossing (3:29)

Palace of Ether:
6. Many Rooms (2:47)
7. Saints in Stone (3:25)
8. Dream of Antiquity (4:34)
9. Painted Dancer (1:51)
10. Actors in Armor (2:56)
11. Before the Idiots (3:51)
12. Vox of Silence (2:02)
13. Horsemen at the Gate (2:13)
14. Nightlit Moons (2:34)
15. Remembrance (5:40)

LINEUP:
Dave Halverson – guitar, synthesizer, bass
Terry Lee – drums, percussion
Richard Bugbee – keyboards

With:
Damien Gonzalez – bass (1)

Although they have been around for about 20 years, Oakland-based outfit Trance Lucid have managed to keep under the radar of the majority of progressive rock fans. Formed in 1993 by guitarist Dave Halverson and drummer Terry Lee, the band released their debut album, Arise, in 1996, followed by Vigil (2000) and The Colors of Darkness (2005). Very active on the live front in the Bay Area, at the end of 2007 Trance Lucid also released a live album, Unrevisited Live, which included 11 previously unreleased compositions performed at five different shows. After a few years’ hiatus, the band regrouped with the addition of keyboardist Richard Bugbee and Halverson himself replacing Bill Noertker on bass duties, and finally released their fifth album, Palace of Ether, in the summer of 2013. Halverson is also an established solo artist, with four albums to his name released between 2003 and 2009.

Stylishly packaged, with an appealing, sepia-toned vintage photo reproduced on the cover, Palace of Ether is a 51-minute slice of instrumental, guitar-based music that reflects the breadth of Halverson’s musical interests and sources of inspiration. While it can be loosely labeled as jazz-rock, Trance Lucid’s sound features elements of other genres, such as blues, funk, world music and even post-rock. Though Halverson’s guitar might be expected to dominate the proceedings, the other instruments are given ample space, and prove equally essential to the musical development of the compositions. The music featured on Palace of Ether runs the gamut from almost straightforward bluesy rock to haunting Oriental influences, showing Halverson’s versatility as a composer. His fluid, consistently melodic style steers clear of self-indulgence, and meshes perfectly with his bandmates’ accomplished input.

Palace of Ether is clearly divided in two halves, the first comprising five stand-alone tracks, the second a 32-minute, 10-part suite that, according to the band’s website, originated 15 years ago. With the exception of the slightly longer closing number “Remembrance” none of the tracks exceed 5 minutes; the album, however, comes across as remarkably tight. In fact, while the tracks may sound somewhat alike on the first couple of listens, the use of apparently similar themes contributes to the cohesive feel of the album.

Opener “TM” gives a taste of Halverson’s compositional approach with a raw-sounding riff in pure Hawkwind style, gradually morphing into a melodic yet somewhat rarefied variation on a single theme. His mastery of quiet-loud dynamics also comes out in the funky “Spyglass” and the brisk, electric “Pocket”, in which Richard Bugbee’s keyboard textures intensify the sense of mounting tension; while “Illumination” and “The Crossing” showcase Trance Lucid’s mellower side –  the latter highlighting the jazzy component of the band’s sound, Halverson’s guitar nicely underpinned by piano ripples, then gradually building up to an exhilarating finale.

As good as these tracks are, the Palace of Ether suite is the true focus of interest of the album, especially for progressive rock fans – and not merely on account of its running time. The twangy, sitar-like sound of the guitar on “Many Rooms” weaves a mystical, Eastern-tinged atmosphere, aptly conveying the “ethereal” nature of the title with the aid of surging mellotron washes – a subdued, entrancing mood that returns in “Saints in Stone”, and even more so in the lovely “Dream of Antiquity”, whose spacious yet carefully structured instrumental texture emphasizes Bugbee’s skillfully layered keyboards. The intricate guitar arpeggios in “Painted Dancer” boldly blend vintage psychedelic rock and hints of bluegrass, while “Vox of Silence” and “Horsemen at the Gate” veer towards an ambient-like direction. On the other hand, “Actors in Armor” “Before the Idiots” and “Remembrance” reprise the more energetic, blues- and jazz-inflected tone of the first half of the album, occasionally reminiscent of the work of Jeff Beck and Allan Holdsworth.

Though Trance Lucid may not be exactly a household name to most of the readers of this blog, Dave Halverson and his bandmates deserve to be more widely known on account of the quality of the music showcased on Palace of Ether. Indeed, both fans and practitioners of the six strings find a lot to appreciate in this eminently listenable album – with enough original ideas not to sound like a rehash of the work of other, better-known names, and avoiding the descent into self-indulgence that has been the undoing of many a would-be ”guitar hero”. Especially recommended to fans of Moonjune Records’ classy output, and instrumental rock in general, the album may need a few spins to click, but is definitely worth the effort.

Links:
http://www.trancelucid.com/home.html

http://www.davehalverson.com/

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cover_2653162812013_r

TRACKLISTING:
1. Sopla viento del Este (4:36)
2. Bounkam Rêverie (4:08)
3. Leilya (4:00)
4. Una para Lars (3:57)

Suite Sendas de Ofir:
5. En Ruta (1:39)
6. White Bird (6:21)
7.  Sendas de Ofir (4:44)
8. Oricalco (2:32)
9. Oricalco Coda (2:28)

10. Aurelia quiere saber (2:23)
11. Sunda Stream (2:42)
12. Aguas del Bagradas (4:18)

LINEUP:
Ángel Ontalva –  guitar, flute
Víctor Rodríguez – keyboards, melodica (10)
Amanda Pazos Cosse – bass
Fran Mangas – saxophones
Toni Mangas – drums
Pablo Ortega – cello (4)
Salib – vocals (3)

Spanish guitarist and graphic artist Ángel Ontalva is the mind behind RIO/Avant band October Equus and a slew of other eclectic projects. He is also the founder of the independent label OctoberXart Records, on which his main band’s latest album, Permafrost, was released in the late spring of 2013. A few months before Permafrost, Ontalva released his first solo album, Mundo Flotante, which includes material originated around 2007, and recorded between 2009 and 2012. Two other members of October Equus – bassist Amanda Pazos Cosse, who is also the artist’s wife, and keyboardist Victor Rodriguez – appear on the album,  as well as other musicians who had already previously collaborated with Ontalva.

Those who approach this album expecting something along the lines of October Equus’ austerely refined take on Avant-Prog may be disappointed, because Mundo Flotante is quite a different animal. Though featuring the same accomplished musicianship and compositional skill, there is very little to remind the listener of Univers Zéro or Henry Cow, while comparisons with the Canterbury scene will often crop up. Indeed, the album’s very title of “Floating World” neatly sums up the airy, effortlessly fluid nature of the music, reminiscent of the quirky elegance of Hatfield and the North or National Health. A rich instrumental texture unfolds a subtly shifting backdrop for Ontalva’s beautiful guitar excursions, suffused with the warmth of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern tradition. In fact, the album’s roots lie in one of Ontalva’s many projects, called Transarabian Connection, whose sound blended classic jazz-rock and chamber music with the traditional music of Spain’s Sephardic Jews. The overall effect is of refined elegance and high listenability in spite of the obvious complexity of the pieces. The music possesses an upbeat, almost catchy feel – obviously not in a mainstream sense, but still making listening a pleasurable experience even for those who are used to more straightforward, melodic fare.

Five of the 12 tracks listed on Mundo Flotante are grouped in a suite titled “Sendas de Ofir”, the album’s centerpiece also on account of it strategic placement in the middle of things. Bookended by gentle, subtly melancholy melodies woven by electric and acoustic guitar, saxophone and keyboards, its central section alternates rarefied passages with an almost improvisational feel and more buoyant ones, led by energetic drums and sax and introducing a hint of dissonance. The elegant flow of the music, its many changes handled with a skilled touch, make for riveting listening, without none of the pretentiousness often associated with ambitious, multi-part compositions.

The remaining tracks are even more intriguing, some of their titles hinting at the presence of heady Middle Eastern suggestions. In particular“Leilya”, the only piece featuring Salib’s haunting wordless vocals well complemented by flute, sax, piano and guitar, conjures a North African market place, as well as the timeless magic of flamenco; opener “Sopla el viento del Este”, on the other hand, marries ethnic flavour and a jaunty, appealingly loose jazzy pace, which spotlights Ontalva’s guitar alongside organ and sax. The charming “Bounkam Reverie” evokes the Canterbury sound with its smooth yet intricate interplay between guitar, keyboards and drums (especially in evidence here), while in “Una para Lars” the cello adds its sober voice to the beautiful, romantic tapestry of acoustic guitar arpeggios embellished by tinkling percussion. The wistful “Aurelia quiere saber” pursues the almost autumnal mood of the last part of the suite, with melodica adding an appealing folksy touch. In contrast, the two final tracks on the album – “Sunda Stream” and “Aguas del Bagradas”-  reprise the brisk, jazzy tone of the opener, with some sharper, angular moments that hint at Ontalva’s work with October Equus.

Clocking in at a mere 43 minutes, Mundo Flotante is full of beautiful, laid-back music that is never in danger of overstaying its welcome, and where Ontalva’s remarkable compositional skill is not overshadowed by excessive ambition (as is often the case with solo albums). The strong ethnic component will especially appeal to those who love some exotic spice in their music of choice, but the album can be safely recommended to most lovers of progressive rock, especially those who lean towards the instrumental side of the genre.

Links:
http://www.octoberxart.com/

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cover_3318122182013_r

TRACKLISTING:
1. Grip It (5:50)
2. Gillz (6:37)
3. Whopner (6:13)
4. Drumbeaux (8:36)
5. Quirk (4:09)
6. BHP (6:03)
7. Meltdown (4:57)
8. Tocino (4:25)
9. I’m Calm Now (6:49)

LINEUP:
John Ziegler –  guitar
Lance Morrison – bass
Danny Carey – drums
Jeff Babko – keyboards

Though their name might not be familiar to many progressive rock fans, Volto! have been around since the start of the new century. Formed by drummer extraordinaire Danny Carey (of Tool fame) together with guitarist John Ziegler,  his former bandmate in Pigmy Love Circus, and session bassist Lance Morrison (who is also a member of Don Henley’s touring band), they started out as a cover band, playing live in the Los Angeles area whenever it was possible for them to get together. A few years later, they ventured into writing and performing  their own material. The next logical step was to head into Carey’s home studio to record their debut album, enlisting the services of veteran session keyboardist Jeff Babko and engineer Joe Barresi (who worked on Tool’s most recent album, 10,000 Days). Incitare was released in August 2013, coinciding with Volto!’s appearance at Yestival in Camden (NJ), alongside Yes, Renaissance, Carl Palmer Band and Sound of Contact.

Anyone who approaches Incitare hoping for some Tool-related music to fill the long wait for the cult quartet’s next album is bound to be disappointed, because Volto!’s debut shares very little (if anything) with Tool’s intense, esoteric sound. In spite of its high-sounding Latin title (“to drive/encourage”), the album is full of the genuine pleasure of playing music, as reflected by the humorous, cartoon-inspired black-and-white cover artwork. While the impressive résumé of the band members might lead some listeners to expect a triumph of style over substance, Incitare comes across as surprisingly easy on the ear. The music possesses a natural flow that is not always associated with such an amount of technical skill: it is exhilarating, energetic and often quite heavy, but never used as a showcase for pointless fireworks, and also unexpectedly melodic.

That being said, Incitare does not lay any claim to being innovative – rooted as it is in the classic jazz-rock tradition of the Seventies, with just a touch of contemporary flair to spice things up. The prominent role of drums and guitar and their seamless, scintillating interplay evoke Billy Cobham’s collaboration with Tommy Bolin on the seminal Spectrum album, or Mahavishnu Orchestra circa Birds of Fire; on the other hand, Jeff Babko’s bold keyboard work hints at some modern-day heavy fusion outfits such as Derek Sherinian’s Planet X (as well as his solo work).

These comparisons immediately spring to mind as “Grip It” opens the album, its fiery, relentless guitar riffs and keyboards backed by Carey’s pyrotechnic drumming; the pace slows down towards the middle, with Ziegler delivering a clear, piercingly melodic solo before things heat up again. The next two tracks showcase the band’s skillful handling of contrasts between dynamic urgency and more laid-back moments. Electric piano lends its unmistakable touch to the intriguing structure of “Gillz”: in the first part, the instruments apparently play at odds but manage to keep a sense of cohesion, while the pace quickens in the finale, driven by lively drums and heavy riffing. “Whopner” is pervaded by a mysterious atmosphere, with faraway-sounding guitar and an almost military drumbeat; then organ takes the lead and drums gain momentum. As hinted in the title, “Drumbeaux” – at over 8 minutes the longest track on the album – spotlights Carrey’s celebrated skills, its central section dedicated to a drum solo that does not overstay its welcome, bookended by spacey, riff-heavy ensemble playing.

Airy and melodic, “Quirk” brings back again echoes of Cobham’s Spectrum, with guitar and electric piano indulging in an elegant duet; while “BHP” barges in with a funky swagger and a barrage of crunching riffs, underpinned by spacey electronics and Carey’s spectacular drumming, then turns subdued, almost romantic in the middle, displaying the band’s ability to shift gears in seemingly effortless fashion. The aptly titled “Meltdown” sees the band dabble with all sorts of electronic effects, while Carey lets rip on his kit, apparently having the time of his life; then the sleek, bass-driven ride of “Tocino” brings things back to normal, with Lance Morrison finally stepping into the limelight and elegant piano flurries enhancing the brisk pace of the track. The album closes on a high note with the power-ballad-meets-vintage-fusion of “I’m Calm Now” – Ziegler’s slow-burning lead reminiscent of Jeff Beck or Gary Moore (especially in his Colosseum II days), then leaving the stage to Babko’s eerily reverberating electric piano and moody, understated synth.

Besides its obvious appeal for fans of impeccably played classic jazz-rock/fusion (especially those who are not averse to a bit of heaviness), Incitare is also a very cohesive piece of work, and avoids the temptation of sprawling, overlong compositions. It also celebrates the joy of playing music at a very high level of proficiency without hitting the listener over the head with one’s chops. In these times of studio-only projects, often conducted over the Internet without any physical contact between the musician, it is heartwarming to see an album that has its origins in live performance – an excellent example of instrumental music that sounds fresh and engaging without pretending to reinvent the wheel.

Links:
http://www.voltoband.com/

http://www.concordmusicgroup.com

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marbin13

TRACKLISTING:
1. Blue Fingers (3:09)
2. Inner Monologue (4:34)
3. Breaking the Cycle (4:15)
4. On the Square (4:24)
5. Café De Nuit (2:32)
6. Redline (5:21)
7. Volta (4:17)
8. The Ballad of Daniel White (4:31)
9. Down Goes the Day (2:02)
10. The Way to Riches (3:21)
11. And the Night Gave Nothing  (2:48)
12. Purple Fiddle  (4:46)
13. Last Day of August  (5:01)
14. Last Chapter of Dreaming  (3:46)

LINEUP:
Danny Markovitch – saxophone, keyboards (5, 14)
Dani Rabin – guitar
Justyn Lawrence – drums (except for 2, 5, 10)
Jae Gentile – bass (except for 5, 10)

With:
Paul Wertico – drums (2, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12)
Steve Rodby – bass (5, 10, 14)
Zohar Fresco – percussion (3, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12)
Jamey Haddad – percussion (2, 5, 7, 8, 10, 12)
Victor Garcia – trumpet (3, 12)
Matt Nelson – keyboards (4, 5, 6, 8, 13)
Rob Clearfield – keyboards (14)
Greg Spero – keyboards (14)
Leslie Beukelman – vocals (3, 5, 12, 14)
Jabari Rayford – vocals (12, 14)
Abraha Rayford – vocals (12, 14)
Caleb Willitz – vocals (3, 12, 14)
Justin Ruff – vocals (3)

Chicago-based band Marbin, founded in 2007 by Israeli-born Dani Rabin (guitar) and Danny Markovitch (saxophone), and cleverly named by conflating their two surnames, have the distinction of being one of the busiest outfits on the current non-mainstream music scene. Indeed, with hundred of gigs a year under their belt, they have even found the time to produce a video tutorial on “How to Make a Living Touring With Your Band”. Though Marbin started out as a duo, independently releasing their self-titled debut in 2009, by the time they were snapped up by Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records (which released their sophomore effort, Breaking the Cycle, in 2011), they had become a full-fledged band, a quartet that availed itself of the collaboration of two experienced jazz-fusion musicians such as Pat Metheny alumni Paul Wertico (drums) and Steve Rodby (bass).

Two years later, Marbin are back with Last Chapter of Dreaming, recorded with drummer Justyn Lawrence and bassist Jae Gentile, who have been part of Marbin’s live incarnation since 2008, plus a host of other musicians. Wertico and Rodby are still on board as special guests, together with percussionist Jamey Haddad, who was also present on Breaking the Cycle. Among the rather lengthy list of collaborators, prog fans will recognize the name of District 97 keyboardist Rob Clearfield, who guests on one track.

Though the album is very much a team effort, very cohesive from an instrumental point of view, Rabin’s guitar and Markovitch’s sax steal the show with their scintillating interplay, denoting the ease that comes from a long partnership coupled with the sheer enjoyment of music-making. Unlike the band’s previous effort, which featured a traditional song, on Last Chapter of Dreaming vocals appear only in the shape of wordless vocalizing; while the addition of other drummers and percussionists lends an appealing sense of dynamics to the two mainmen’s exertions. The final product is a very sophisticated mix of rock, jazz and blues with hints of world music, though in some ways not as successful as the band’s previous two albums.

Especially if compared to Marbin’s debut – an exquisitely minimalistic production that made the most of Rabin and Markovitch’s impressive skills – Last Chapter of Dreaming, at least in part, takes a sharp turn in a more mainstream direction, a trend that had already surfaced in some episodes of Breaking the Cycle, though not as noticeably as here. In particular, the handful of tracks featuring vocals veer dangerously close to easy listening. While “Breaking the Cycle” (oddly enough, not featured on the album of the same title) is given a dramatic, cinematic sweep by Victor Garcia’s wistful trumpet, the airy, lullaby-like “Café de Nuit” oozes a nostalgic Old-World feel, and both “Purple Fiddle” and the title-track – with their slow, laid-back vibe – put me in mind of a slightly cheesy soundtrack for some European Seventies movie.

The more rock-oriented tracks see Marbin at their best, such as pyrotechnic opener “Blue Fingers” with its assertive, metal-tinged riffing and energetic sax, the brisk, Hammond-laced “On the Square”, and the jazzy rock’n’roll workout of “Redline” (also enhanced by discreet Hammond organ). The exhilarating “Volta”, shifting from a melodic, laid-back mood to frantic, riff-laden bursts of energy complemented by a Morricone-influenced cinematic grandiosity, is one of the undisputed highlights of the whole album – as is the subdued “The Ballad of Daniel White”, showcasing Justyn Lawrence’s superb drumming.

With 14 rather short tracks spread over 55 minutes, Last Chapter of Dreaming avoids overstaying its welcome as other, more ambitious albums do, though some of the tracks might have been omitted without too much detriment. Though a classy offering, flawlessly performed by a group of outstanding musicians, it is not as organic as its predecessor, and flirts a bit too closely with smooth jazz to find favour with lovers of the more challenging fare generally released by Moonjune Records. The album makes nevertheless for a very pleasing listening experience, and a special mention is deserved by the stunning cover artwork, courtesy of Portland-based artist Brin Levinson (also responsible for the cover of Breaking the Cycle, as well as Dissonati’s debut Reductio Ad Absurdum).

Links:
http://marbinmusic.com/

http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/050_MARBIN_Last-Chapter-of-Dreaming_MJR050/

http://www.youtube.com/user/marbinmusic

http://brinlevinson.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Burden Of Proof (5:51)
2. Voyage Beyond Seven (4:53)
3. Kitto (1:50)
4. Pie Chart (5:07)
5. JPS (1:03)
6. Kings and Queens (6:46)
7. Fallout (6:59)
8. Going Somewhere Canorous? (1:13)
9. Black And Crimson (5:05)
10. The Brief (2:27)
11. Pump Room (5:19)
12. Green Cubes (5:33)
13. They Landed on a Hill (3:03)

LINEUP:
John Etheridge – electric guitar
Roy Babbington – bass guitar
John Marshall – drums, percussion
Theo Travis, tenor sax, flute, Fender Rhodes piano

It should not come as a surprise to find Soft Machine Legacy on the roster of an independent label named after one of the original Soft Machine’s most iconic compositions. The band – the last in a series of Soft Machine offshoots started by bassist Hugh Hopper back in 1978 with Soft Heap – was born in 2004, when guitarist Allan Holdsworth left Soft Works and was replaced by John Etheridge. They released a studio album and two live ones between 2005 and 2006, just before founding member Elton Dean’s untimely passing. Their second studio-based effort, 2007’s Steam,  saw renowned flutist/saxophonist Theo Travis (currently also a member of Gong, The Tangent and Steven Wilson’s band)  take Dean’s place; the album was also to be the last with Hugh Hopper, who succumbed to leukemia in 2009. In spite of these setbacks, Travis, Etheridge and drummer John Marshall (who had originally replaced Robert Wyatt in 1971) recruited another Soft Machine alumnus, bassist Roy Babbington, and went on to produce their third studio album. Burden of Proof, recorded in Italy at Arti e Mestieri keyboardist Beppe Crovella’s Electromantic Studios was finally released on Moonjune Records in the spring of 2013.

Though its name may suggest yet another of the many tribute bands whose popularity often eclipses that of bands performing their own material, Soft Machine Legacy deliver much more than just a reverent homage to one of the most influential bands of the early progressive rock scene. The “Legacy” at the end of the band’s name (even when all of its founders had the legal right to call themselves Soft Machine) emphasizes the continuity between the “mother” band and its offshoots, while ruling out slavish imitation. Bringing together the variegated threads of the history of the band founded by Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen in the mid-Sixties, the quartet led by John Etheridge have perfected their own original sound. Travis’ own soundscaping system, called Ambitronics, lends the proceedings a haunting ambient component, bringing to mind his work with Robert Fripp, and integrating with Etheridge’s use of loops and other effects to replace Mike Ratledge’s trademark fuzzed organ; while his sparing but effective use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano creates an ideal connection to Soft Machine’s turning-point album, Fourth (their first completely instrumental effort).

Featuring 13 relatively short compositions spread over a running time of about 55 minutes, Burden of Proof possesses an internal cohesion of its own. The longer, more structured pieces (between 3 and 7 minutes) are bridged by shorter interludes, mostly improvisational in nature; despite this apparent fragmentation, the music flows effortlessly, and the two “souls” of the album fit together without leaving an impression of patchiness. A stunning rendition of Hugh Hopper’s “Kings and Queens” (from Soft Machine’s Fourth) – strategically located in the middle of the album, and led by Theo Travis’ melodic, melancholy flute meshing with Etheridge’s measured guitar – functions as a centerpiece that captures the original band’s moment of transition from its psychedelic roots to state-of-the-art jazz-rock. Roy Babbington (who guested on Fourth, though not on “Kings and Queens”) is a discreet but unmistakable presence, his finely-honed synergy with John Marshall’s impeccable drumming in evidence right from the opening strains of the title-track – which later develops into an intriguing “conversation piece” between sax and guitar. The upbeat sax intro to “Voyage Beyond Seven” briefly dispels the previous number’s elegantly laid-back atmosphere, before going into a sort of slow-motion that culminates into a rather chaotic, spacey jam with sudden flares of volume.

The deeply atmospheric Etheridge showcase of “Kitto” leads into the slow-burning, jazz-blues saunter of “Pie Chart” – an unexpected but welcome deviation from the band’s heady yet somewhat lofty stylings, as is the bracing boogie-rock of “Pump Room”, with Etheridge delivering a barrage of rough-and-ready riffs and scratchy, distorted chords, aided and abetted by Travis’ buoyant sax. “Black and Crimson” is all about melody Soft Machine Legacy-style, with an almost Latin feel; while the nearly 7-minute “Fallout” sandwiches a loose, improvisational section between a brisk, sax-and-guitar-driven main theme, bolstered by Marshall’s dramatic drum rolls. The album is wrapped up by the noisy avant-garde bash of “Green Cubes”, followed by the spacey, meditative strains of “They Landed on a Hill” – a finale that, in a way, represents the album’s two souls.

Those who have followed Soft Machine Legacy and its previous incarnations for the past two decades will find a lot to love in Burden of Proof, an album that combines melody and ambiance with the almost carefree abandon of improvisation. The four members of Soft Machine Legacy draws upon their individual strengths, striving to create music that, while sophisticated, is also not too detached from the earthiness of rock. Though the amount of improvisation may put off those who prefer their music to be scripted, and the minimalistic approach to composition may be found unsatisfactory by fans of prog’s more convoluted aspects, the album captures a group of seasoned musicians who obviously still enjoy themselves both in the studio and on stage. Even if sometimes demanding, Burden of Proof is also a consistently rewarding listen.

Links:
http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/052_SOFT-MACHINE-LEGACY_Burden-Of-Proof_MJR052/

http://www.johnetheridge.com/softmachinelegacy/index.htm

https://myspace.com/softmachinelegacy/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Detox Gruel (4:13)
2. Spanish Fly (5:19)
3. Yantra (8:04)
4. Frank Nuts (3:38)
5. Jungle Cow Part I (5:50)
6. Jungle Cow Part II (4:40)
7. Jungle Cow Part III (6:07)
8. Glass Cubes (8:30)
9. Wrong but Not False (5:28)
10. Flashlight Into Black Hole (3:05)
11. Stammtisch (5:59)

LINEUP:
Michel Delville – guitar, Roland GR-09
Antoine Guenet  – keyboards, vocals
Marti Melia – bass and tenor saxes, clarinet
François Lourtie – tenor, alto and soprano saxes, voice
Pierre Mottet – bass
Laurent Delchambre – drums, percussion, objects, samples

With:
Benoît Moerlen – marimba and electronic vibraphone (2, 3, 5-7, 11)
Susan Clynes – vocals (8)

After the release of Machine Mass Trio’s As Real As Thinking and douBt’s Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love in the past couple of years, guitarist extraordinaire Michel Delville returns with his  main band, all-Belgian combo The Wrong Object. Only Delville and drummer Laurent Delchambre remain from the lineup that released Stories from the Shed in 2008: the band has now become a sextet with the addition of four new members, including brilliant keyboardist Antoine Guenet, the leader of avant-metal-jazz outfit Sh.tg.n. (whose self-titled debut was released in 2012), who recently joined RIO/Avant icons Univers Zéro.

One of the most prolific artists signed to Moonjune Records, the label founded by Leonardo Pavkovic in 2001, Delville is an extremely talented guitarist and composer, with a genuinely progressive attitude and a strong commitment to creative music-making. Though The Wrong Object have been in existence for over 10 years, and enjoyed a thriving concert activity all over Europe (witnessed by two live albums, The Unbelievable Truth (recorded in 2005 with the late, great Elton Dean) and Platform One (recorded in 2007 with renowned British jazz musicians Annie Whitehead and Harry Beckett), their studio debut came relatively late with Stories From the Shed – an excellent album drawing on a wide range of sources of inspiration. However, the 5-year break has brought further refinement to the band’s sound, resulting in a quantum leap in terms of quality.

Although Delville is the undisputed band leader and main composer, it would be wrong to assume that The Wrong Object’s sound is dominated by guitar antics. In fact – very much in the way of his Moonjune label mate Dennis Rea of Moraine –  Delville’s presence is surprisingly discreet, often leaving the limelight to the band’s duo of saxophonists, Marti Melia and François Lourtie. Guenet’s keyboards flesh out the tune according to need, adding occasional melodic flourishes or energetic organ runs, while Laurent Delchambre’s versatile drumming and Pierre Mottet’s understated yet nimble bass lines provide a reliable foundation that keeps up effortlessly with the shifts in tempo and mood. Delville’s guitar anchors the album to the rock aesthetics, ramping up the electricity quotient even when keeping almost unobtrusively in the background. Renowned mallet percussionist Benoit Moerlen (of Gong/Gongzilla fame) guests on more than half of the tracks, adding the tinkling, cascading sound of his marimba and electronic vibraphone to the sonic texture.

Spread over nearly 60 minutes, the 11 tracks on After the Exhibition flow naturally in spite of their density. For all its eclecticism, the music is surprisingly cohesive and never comes across as contrived or overdone. Electric flare-ups coexist with intimate, subdued moments in an unpredictable and constantly exciting mix; at the same time, though, is also a more disciplined feel than in Delville’s two previous releases with douBt and Machine Mass Trio.

Opening with the shock tactics of the brisk, exhilarating “Detox Gruel”, propelled by raucous sax with dashes of organ and Delville’s slightly strident guitar, the album’s first half culminates with the unorthodox three-part “suite” of “Jungle Cow”. In over 16 minutes of music, the composition morphs from a collection of sparse, spacey sound effects into an intense sax-and-guitar duel. The 8-minute “Yantra” juxtaposes atmospheric lyricism and heady, almost free-form improvisation with blaring saxes and unleashed guitar, while the jaunty “Spanish Fly” is reminiscent of modern classical composers such as Bartok or Stravinsky, as well as jazz and Middle Eastern music..

The album’s second half is introduced by the jaw-droppingly beautiful “Glass Cubes” interpreted by the elegantly expressive voice of Belgian singer/songwriter Susan Clynes (compared by some to modern jazz icon Annette Peacock), complemented by Guenet’s gorgeous piano and backing vocals – a stylish, magical slice of 21st-century Canterbury sound that hints at the best moments of Hatfield and the North and Soft Machine. The final three numbers feel like an ideal continuation of the mood set by “Glass Cubes”, with definite Canterbury undertones in the sprightly, catchy “Wrong but Not False” and the invigorating, funk-tinged “Flashlight Into Black Hole”, where Pierre Mottet’s bass comes into its own. Wrapping up the album in style, the romantic, Old-World flavour and elegant waltz-like pace of “Stammtisch”, conducted like a conversation between guitar, piano and sax, is briefly interrupted by the instruments interacting chaotically, then calm returns for a slo-mo finale.

With its perfectly balanced running time, After the Exhibition is a true rollercoaster ride of dazzling musicianship coupled with sophisticated flair for melody that tempers and softens the bristling intensity of the album’s more electrifying parts.  Even if the avant-garde component is not as strongly spotlighted as in their previous effort, RIO/Avant fans will find a lot to appreciate in the album, as will lovers of the Canterbury scene, classic jazz-rock, and even psychedelic/space rock. On the other hand, the sheer beauty of “Glass Cubes” might win over those who are more attached to prog’s traditional extended-song format. Highly recommended to everyone, After the Exhibition is an exercise in pure class, and will certainly grace many a “best of 2013” list.

Links:
http://www.wrongobject.com/

http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/055_THE-WRONG-OBJECT_After-The-Exhibition_MJR055/

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No doubt about it: 2012 was a difficult year for most of us. True to the Italian saying about leap years being unlucky, 2012 ran the gamut from weather-related disasters, wars and other acts of random violence to political malfunction and economic near-collapse, sparing almost no part of the world. There was no lack of disruption in my own little world either. In spite of all my good resolutions, the year started with a few weeks of less than stellar physical condition (nothing serious, but enough to grind most of my projects to a halt), and then I was hit by a double-whammy of bureaucracy-related problems that –  while obviously not tragic – caused enough distress to cast a pall over the remaining months.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in 2012 I have been less prolific a reviewer than in previous years, or that the views on this blog have somehow decreased, though not dramatically so. Constant stress can wreak havoc on inspiration, and at times it was hard to come up with a coherent sentence – let alone an 800-word review. However, in spite of the seemingly endless stream of worry and general annoyance, music has remained a source of delight and (as the title of this essay points out) comfort when things got really tough.

The number of progressive rock-related albums released during 2012 was nothing short of staggering. The second decade of the 21st century started indeed with a bang in 2011, and, at least for the time being, the trend does not show any signs of being reversed. Many of those albums were made available for streaming (at least for a limited time) by websites such as Progstreaming, Bandcamp or Soundcloud, allowing the often cash-strapped fans a “test run”. On the other hand, the sheer volume of new releases made it necessary to pick and choose to avoid being overwhelmed. While confirming the vitality of the genre, this also showed one of the downsides of the digital age – the oversaturation of the market, and frequent lack of quality control.

As my readers know, I do not do “top 10/20/50/100” lists, leaving this exercise to people who are interested in arranging their choices according to a more or less strict order of preference. From my perspective, there have been milestone releases, and others that – while perhaps not equally memorable – still deserve a mention. On any account, even more so than in the previous year, 2012 has emphasized the ever-widening gulf between the retro-oriented and the forward-thinking components of the prog audience. Sometimes, while looking at the reviews pages of some of the leading websites of the genre, I have had the impression that (to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling) the twain shall hardly ever meet. In the US, such a split has been detrimental to the festival scene – though the void left by NEARfest’s demise may lead organizers to step out of their typical audience’s comfort zone in order to attract a more diverse crowd.

Though I am most familiar with albums that I have reviewed, or otherwise own, there are others that have left enough of an impression to deserve a mention in this post. As my choices have been mainly informed by personal taste, I will apologize beforehand for any major omissions. While I may consider those albums essential listening, some of my readers will certainly disagree with me, and suggest their own personal picks –and this is exactly how things should be. Indeed, as the French would say, vive la différence!

Although I have built a reputation as a fan of the more “difficult” stuff, one of my favourite albums of the year (and one that is likely to be featured in many top 10 lists) is an album that, in many respects, is not even “prog” in the conventional sense of the word. However, Echolyn’s self-titled eighth studio album – unlike so many true-blue prog releases – is a masterpiece of songwriting, instrumentally tight without any concessions to self-indulgence, and packing a huge emotional punch. Another highly awaited, almost unexpected comeback – 18 years after the band’s previous studio effort – Änglagård’s third studio album, Viljans Öga, reveals a keen, almost avant-garde edge beneath its pastoral surface, well highlighted in their impeccable NEARfest appearance.

2012 was a milestone year for what I like to call the “new frontier” of prog – less focused on epic grandeur and more song-oriented. In the second decade of the 21st century, “progressive rock” and “song” are not antithetic concepts any longer, and going for 5 minutes instead than 15 is not a sign of sell-out. Three albums in particular stand out: 3RDegree’s The Long Division, a perfect combination of great melodies, intelligent lyrics and outstanding musicianship with the added value of George Dobbs’ Stevie Wonder-influenced vocals; the Magna Carta reissue of MoeTar’s 2010 debut From These Small Seeds, a heady blend of catchy hooks, edgier suggestions and Moorea Dickason’s stellar, jazz-inflected voice; and Syd Arthur’s delightful “modern Canterbury” debut, On And On – infused with the spirit of early Soft Machine and Pink Floyd.

As in the previous years, in 2012 the ever-growing instrumental prog scene produced some outstanding albums. Canadian multi-instrumentalist Dean Watson wowed devotees of high-energy jazz-rock with Imposing Elements, the second installment of his one-man project – inspired by the industrial Gothic paintings of Toronto-based artist Ron Eady. In the early months of 2012, French seven-piece Forgas Band Phenomena made a triumphant recording comeback with the exhilaratingly accomplished Acte V. Another two excellent Cuneiform releases, Ergo’s second album If Not Inertia and Janel & Anthony’s lovely debut, Where Is Home, while not immediately approachable, will gradually win over the discerning listener with their deep emotion and lyricism. In a similar vein, A Room for the Night by drummer extraordinaire John Orsi (the mind behind Providence-based collective Knitting By Twilight) provides a veritable aural feast for percussion lovers. On the cusp of prog, jazz and metal, the aptly-titled Brutal Romance marks the thunderous return of ebullient French power trio Mörglbl, led by Christophe Godin’s humour-laden guitar acrobatics. Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records specializes in instrumental music of a consistently high standard of quality, and this year’s landmark releases were no exception: Indonesian powerhouses Ligro (Dictionary 2) and Tohpati Bertiga (Riot), Canadian quartet Mahogany Frog’s rivetingly eclectic Senna, and douBt’s towering Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love – all of them true melting pots of rock, jazz, avant-garde and psychedelia. Also very much worthy of exploration, Kotebel’s Concert for Piano and Electric Ensemble revisits and updates the marriage of classical music and progressive rock with a heady dose of traditional Spanish flavour.

The left-field fringe of the progressive rock spectrum was spearheaded by the tireless efforts of dedicated labels such as Cuneiform Records and AltrOck Productions. One of  2012’s musical milestones – the long-awaited sixth studio album by seminal US Avant outfit Thinking Plague, titled Decline and Fall – was released in the very first weeks of the year. Mike Johnson’s monumentally intricate, intensely gloomy reflection on humankind’s impending Doomsday was complemented by a Thinking Plague-related project of a vastly different nature  – the charming, Old-World whimsy of 3 Mice’s Send Me a Postcard, Dave Willey and Elaine Di Falco’s transatlantic collaboration with Swiss multi-instrumentalist Cédric Vuille. By an intriguing coincidence, almost at the tail end of the year came the stunning live album by one of the foremost modern RIO/Avant outfits, Yugen’s Mirrors – recorded at the 2011 edition of the Rock in Opposition festival in Carmaux (France). A special mention is also deserved by Cuneiform’s touching tribute to RIO icon Lars Hollmer, With Floury Hand (sketches), released four years after the artist’s untimely passing.

On the Zeuhl front, founding fathers Magma made their comeback with the short and unusually low-key Félicité Thosz, proving once again Christian Vander’s versatility and seemingly endless reservoir of ideas; while the US produced an astonishing example of Zeuhl inspired by Aztec mythology – multi-national outfit Corima’s second album Quetzalcoatl. Eclectic albums such as Cucamonga’s Alter Huevo, Inner Ear Brigade’s Rainbro (featuring another extremely talented female vocalist, Melody Ferris) and Stabat Akish’s Nebulos – as well as chamber-rock gems such as Subtilior’s Absence Upon a Ground  and AltrOck Chamber Quartet’s Sonata Islands Goes RIO – reinforced AltrOck’s essential role in the discovery of new, exciting talent on the cutting edge of the progressive rock scene. Also worthy of a mention as regards the Avant-Progressive field are the politically-charged Songs From the Empire by Scott Brazieal, one of the founding fathers of the US Avant scene; the exhilarating Sleep Furiously by English outfit Thumpermonkey;  the wacked-out return of cult Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat, titled Valta; and French quartet Jack Dupon’s energetic double live CD set, Bascule A Vif . The Avant-Progressive scene was also celebrated in the second episode of José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt’s documentary film series dedicated to progressive rock , Romantic Warriors II – About Rock in Opposition.

The year was also noted for hotly anticipated comebacks from high-profile acts:  first of all, Rush, who were also finally inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for the joy of their substantial following. Their Clockwork Angels, while not a life-altering masterpiece, is definitely their strongest effort in almost 20 years. 2012 also saw the release of Ian Anderson’s Thick As a Brick 2, mixed by none other than Steven Wilson (also responsible in 2012 for the 40th Anniversary edition of King Crimson’s seminal Larks’ Tongues in Aspic) – a solid, well-crafted album, though not on a par with the original. While King Crimson seem to have been put on hold indefinitely, Robert Fripp has not been idle, and the elegant Travis/Fripp CD/DVD package Follow offers a complete aural and visual experience – suitably rarefied yet spiked by almost unexpected electric surges – to diehard fans of the legendary guitarist.

On the “modern prog” front, standard-bearers The Mars Volta’s sixth studio album Noctourniquet marks a return to form for the band, as it is their tightest, most cohesive effort in quite a long time. The Tea Club’s third album, Quickly, Quickly, Quickly confirms the status of the New Jersey band (now a trio) as one of the most interesting modern outfits, with a respectful eye towards the golden age of the genre; while Gazpacho’s deeply atmospheric March of Ghosts offers another fine example of English label KScope’s “post-progressive” direction. In a more accessible vein, Canadian/Ukrainian duo Ummagma’s  pair of debut albums, Ummagma and Antigravity,  will appeal to fans of Kate Bush, Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins with their ethereal yet uplifting feel.

Though I cannot call myself a fan of progressive metal, the debut albums by female-fronted German band Effloresce (Coma Ghosts) and Israeli outfit Distorted Harmony (Utopia) made enough of an impression to deserve a mention here; while Diablo Swing Orchestra’s Pandora’s Piñata – the band’s most mature effort to date – transcends the boundaries of the genre.  At the very beginning of the year, Steve Brockmann and George Andrade’s opus AIRS: A Rock Opera updates the classic rock opera format while deftly avoiding the cheesiness of other similar efforts, concentrating on a moving tale of guilt and redemption interpreted by an array of considerable vocal and instrumental talent.

The thriving contemporary psychedelic/space rock scene also produced a slew of fine albums that combine modernity and eclecticism with an unmistakable retro touch: among many others, Øresund Space Collective’s mellow West, Space and Love, Earthling Society’s eerie pagan-fest Stations of the Ghost, Colour Haze’s Krautrock-influenced double CD set She Said, Diagonal’s fiery The Second Mechanism, Astra’s highly awaited (though to these ears not as impressive as the others) second album, The Black Chord. Fans of Krautrock, and Can in particular, should also check out Black and Ginger by Churn Milk Joan, one of the many projects by volcanic English multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson (of Big Block 454 fame); while Australian band Tame Impala’s Lonerism will appeal to those who like psychedelic rock in a song-based format.

As prolific and varied as ever, the Italian progressive rock scene produced a number of remarkable albums ranging from the classic symphonic prog of Höstsonaten’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Pt. 1, Alphataurus’ comeback AttosecondO and Locanda delle Fate’s The Missing Fireflies (featuring both older and new material) to more left-field fare such as Nichelodeon’s live album NO, Stereokimono’s Intergalactic Art Café and Daal’s Dodecahedron. Another of Fabio Zuffanti’s many projects besides Höstsonaten, L’Ombra della Sera, presents an appealingly Gothic-tinged, almost completely instrumental homage to the soundtracks of cult Italian TV series of the Seventies. Aldo Tagliapietra’s Nella Pietra e Nel Vento, his first release after his split from Le Orme, a classy, prog-tinged singer-songwriter effort, boasts a splendid cover by Paul Whitehead. The prize of most impressive RPI album of the year, however, goes to Il Bacio della Medusa’s ultra-dramatic historical concept Deus Lo Vult, with side project Ornithos’ eclectic debut La Trasfigurazione a close second.

Of the many “traditional” prog albums released in 2012, one in particular stands out on account of its superb songwriting: Big Big Train’s English Electric Pt 1, an effort of great distinction though not as impressive as its predecessor, 2009’s The Underfall Yard. Autumn Chorus’ debut The Village to the Vale also celebrates the glories of England’s green and pleasant land with a near-perfect marriage of pastoral symphonic prog and haunting post-rock; while Israeli outfit Musica Ficta’s A Child & A Well (originally released in 2006) blends ancient and folk music suggestions with jazz and symphonic prog. Released just three weeks before the end of the year, Shadow Circus’ third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night (their first for 10T Records), based on Madeleine L’Engle’s cult novel A Wrinkle in Time, fuses symphonic prog with classic and hard rock in an exhilarating mixture. On the other hand, Pacific Northwest trio Dissonati’s debut, Reductio Ad Absurdum, gives classic prog modes a makeover with influences from new wave and avant-garde. Highly touted outfit District 97’s sophomore effort, Trouble With Machines, proves that the Chicago band is much more than a nine days’ wonder, showcasing their  tighter songwriting skills, as well as vocalist/frontwoman Leslie Hunt’s undeniable talent and charisma.

With such a huge wealth of releases, it was materially impossible for me to listen to everything I would have wanted to, and my personal circumstances often impaired my enjoyment of music, as well as my concentration. Among the releases of note that I missed in 2012 (though I still hope to be able to hear in 2013), I will mention Beardfish’s The Void, Anathema’s Weather Systems, Dead Can Dance’s comeback Anastasis, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (another comeback, released after a 10-year hiatus), AranisMade in Belgium, The Muffins’ Mother Tongue, Alec K. Redfearn and the EyesoresSister Death, and Motorpsycho’s The Death-Defying Unicorn. All of these albums have been very positively received by the prog community, even if they will not necessarily appeal to everyone.

As was the case with my 2011 retrospective, quite a few highly acclaimed prog albums will be missing from this article. This implies no judgment in terms of intrinsic quality, but is simply determined by personal taste. Albums such as The Flower KingsBanks of Eden, Marillion’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made or IZZ’s Crush of Night (to name but three) –although thoroughly professional and excellent from a musical point of view – failed to set my world on fire. A pure matter of chemistry – as further demonstrated by my lack of enthusiasm for Storm Corrosion’s self-titled album (which reflected my reaction to Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning in 2011), or Mike Keneally’s undoubtedly outstanding Wing Beat Fantastic, co-written with Andy Partridge of XTC fame.

2012 was also a great year for live music, with both big names and new talent hitting the road. While we missed some of the former (such as Rush and Peter Gabriel), as well as this year’s edition of RoSfest,  the one-two punch of NEARfest Apocalypse and ProgDay 2012 more than made up for it. Unfortunately, the all-out Seventies bash named FarFest, organized by a veteran of the US prog scene such as Greg Walker, and planned for early October 2012 – was cancelled due to poor ticket sales, reinforcing the impression that the era of larger-scale prog festivals may well be coming to an end (in spite of the announcement of Baja Prog’s return in the spring of 2013). On the other hand, the much less ambitious ProgDay model is likely to become the way forward, as are the smaller, intimate gigs organized by people such as Mike Potter of Orion Studios, the NJ Proghouse “staph”, and our very own DC-SOAR.

With an impressive list of forthcoming releases for every progressive taste, 2013 looks set up to be as great a year as the previous two. In the meantime, we should continue to support the independent music scene in our best capacity – not just by buying albums or writing about them, but also attending gigs and generally maintaining a positive, constructive attitude. I would also like to thank all my friends and readers for their input and encouragement, which has been invaluable especially whenever the pressures of “real life” became too hard to bear. If this piece has seen the light of day, it is because you have made me feel that it was still worth it.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. There Is a War Going On (3:22)
2. Jalal (7:16)
3. No More Quarrel With the Devil (4:41)
4. Rising Upon Clouds (5:41)
5. Purple Haze (4:47)
6. The Invitation (4:03)
7. Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love (12:14)
8. There Is a War Going On (reprise) (1:18)
9. Tears Before Bedtime (2:44)
10. The Human Abstract (6:24)
11. No More Quarrel With the Devil (reprise) (1:14)
12. Mercury (4:19)
13. Goodbye My Fellow Soldier (9:10)

LINEUP:
Alex Maguire – keyboards, sequencer
Michel Delville – guitar, Roland GR09, samples
Tony Bianco – drums, sequencer

Three years after the release of their debut, Never Pet a Burning Dog (with Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair guesting on three tracks), multinational trio douBt are back with a new album whose title of Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love comes from “The Divine Image”, one of the poems in William Blake’s inspirational Songs of Innocence and Experience. The album, recorded in 2011, was released in the autumn of 2012. The three band members – British keyboardist Alex Maguire, seasoned American drummer Tony Bianco and volcanic Belgian guitarist Michel Delville  – come from different yet complementary musical experiences, and have also collaborated on previous occasions (Delville and Bianco in Machine Mass Trio, Delville and Maguire on the Brewed in Belgium live album, released by Moonjune in 2008). Together they form an unconventional power trio, where the bass guitar is replaced by cutting-edge technology:  indeed, on Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love the role of technology as support to the explosive energy of rock is promoted with great effectiveness.

Just like its predecessor, Never Pet a Burning Dog (where the improvisational, free-jazz component was married to an unmistakable Canterbury influence), Mercy. Pity, Peace & Love sums up the current direction of Moonjune Records mainman Leonardo Pavkovic’s view of progressive music-making. Drawing upon rock, jazz, fusion, ambient and avant-garde with a fearlessly genre-bending attitude, the three band members bring their respective musical backgrounds to the table and merge them in a multifaceted yet cohesive whole. Tony Bianco’s jazz-inflected drumming is capable of understated finesse as well as muscular, propulsive power, and lays down a reliably eclectic foundation for the interplay between Alex Maguire’s fuzzy, slightly hoarse-sounding organ, reminiscent of Mike Ratledge’s unique tone, and Michel Delville’s dazzling guitar exertions.

Including parts of a recorded speech in an album is not a new device in rock music, and may come across either as a powerful statement of intent or as a rather cheap gimmick Here, the speech in question – delivered by firebrand US Senator Bernie Sanders – is focused on “class warfare” and the gradual disappearance of the middle class. The vintage psychedelic feel of the swirling organ and guitar fits the mood of the song perfectly, and is briefly reprised later in the album, reinforcing the sense of cohesiveness of the whole work. In a similar vein, the mid-paced yet raw-sounding “Tears Before Bedtime” and  a blistering cover of Jimi Hendrix’s iconic “Purple Haze” showcase Delville’s fierce, distorted guitar while emphasizing the remarkable synergy between the three musicians. Propelled by Bianco’s flawlessly dynamic drumming patterns, the  funky “Jalal” features stunning guitar and piano in an alternation of atmospheric and fiery moments.

Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love’s two “epics” – 12-minute title-track, strategically placed in the middle of the album, and  9-minute closing track “Goodbye My Fellow Soldier”-  highlight the fundamental influence of Soft Machine on douBt’s sound. Indeed, the  wailing keyboards and sinuous drumming of the former – bolstered by sampled strings at the onset, then allowed free rein –   bring to mind the legendary Canterbury outfit on steroids, while the latter takes a solemn, even somber direction, as hinted by the title. The angular, riff-driven opening of “No More Quarrel With the Devil” leads into a scorching guitar-organ duel that blends King Crimson and Deep Purple, while “Rising Upon Clouds” offers a surging, appropriately chaotic sonic description of a gathering storm that evokes Pink Floyd’s “A Saucerful of Secrets”. On the other hand, the band’s jazz matrix emerges clearly in the discreet, piano-led “Mercury” and the nostalgic, ballad-like “The Invitation”, where Delville’s beautifully melodic guitar is underpinned by understated drums and keyboards.. Finally in “The Human Abstract”, the instruments seem almost to be playing at odds, yet everything holds together, with electronics adding a spacey touch.

Combining outstanding musicianship, a healthy dose of eclecticism and plenty of emotion (which is not always the case with this kind of music),  Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love is riveting from start to finish, and – though clocking in at a rather hefty 67 minutes – never feels as padded or overstretched as other albums with a comparable running time. Highly recommended to all lovers of instrumental music, both of the rock and the jazz persuasion, Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love will equally appeal to fans of Soft Machine and Jimi Hendrix, and will definitely earn a mention in many a “best of 2012” list.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/doubt3

http://www.moonjune.com

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